By Dr. Aaron Bird
The recent book by Rob Bell, Love Wins, has reopened the controversial topic about the ultimate spiritual destiny of mankind – will every person, no matter what, be reconciled ultimately back to God through his bountiful love in Christ’s sacrificial death and live eternally in His presence, or will Judgment Day separate some men and women to eternal separation from God, that is to Hell, while others, through the reconciling work of Christ on the Cross, spend eternity with God?
The month of May will be devoted to exploring this question. We thought that there is no better place to discuss this heated topic then at your local seminary. We have asked D. Scott Reichard, a local proponent of “ultimate reconciliation,” and Dr. Aaron Bird, an adjunct Professor at Urbana Seminary and specialist on the doctrine of Hell – who will be teaching a summer course at Urbana Seminary called “Evil, Hell & Universalism” – to discuss the matter for us on our blog. This week Dr. Bird address Mr. Reichard’s previous post.
I’m rather surprised my Universalist friend, Scott, utilized church history as his argument, essentially blaming Augustine and the King James Version for hoodwinking Christendom into the dark doctrine of hell. Scores of credible and celebrated theologians supported the orthodox view of hell throughout church history and many of them predate Augustine. Indeed, the doctrinal stability of the orthodox view throughout church history stuns even church historians, especially given the diverse places, different times, and distinct traditions from which a vast number of sources championed it. To name a few: Ignatius of Antioch (A.D. 117); Clement of Alexandria (c. 195); Justin Martyr (150); Polycarp (c.112); Theophilus of Antioch (c. 181); Tertullian (c. 197); Hippolytus (c. 215); Lactantius (c. 240); Cyprian of Carthage (c. 252); Basil of Caeasarea (c. 330); Jerome (c. 347); and, John Chrysostom (c. 349).
Christian creeds and councils contain it too: The Apostle’s creed (ca. mid-2nd century); Nicene and Niceno-Constantinopolitan creeds (“judge the living and the dead”); and, the Athanasian creed (ca. 4th-6th centuries). This was then affirmed in the Chalcedonian definition in 451, with the theologians at the council of Constantinople, the fifth ecumenical council (553) and the Fourth Lateran (1215), and then again with the thinkers at the Diet of Augsburg in the Augsburg Confession (1530). The popes, Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin, and the father of Methodism, John Wesley, all affirmed the orthodox view of hell too.
The rich church history of affirming the orthodox view of hell makes the crisp words of the credible church historian, Thomas Oden, seem like an understatement, “It is hard to think of any Christian teaching that has stronger biblical precedent and greater traditional consensus than this teaching of hell.”
I know it’s fashionable to treat Augustine as a whipping boy, but blaming Augustine does not convince me of Universalism. It also trivializes all the aforementioned theologians who believed the orthodox view before Augustine was even born. What’s more shocking is the sweeping implication that the apostle Paul did not teach on hell just because he did not employ the word “hell” often. This kind of thinking confuses a concept with a word; Paul was not concerned with a word as much as he was with the concept of the ultimate destiny of those outside of Jesus Christ, to which he talks about in great length. While sitting in a pew at Mars Hill Church I can point to a man on stage (Rob Bell) and speak of him in many ways – a man, a white man, preacher, dad, loving husband, poet, not a theologian, author – without ever saying his name and the people next to me will know who the words refer to. Paul does the same thing with the eschatological reality of hell when he refers to it with the words “perish,” “destroy,” “destruction,” “wrath,” “condemn,” “condemnation,” “judge,” “judgment,” “curse/d,” “eternally condemned,” “punish,” and “trouble and distress.”
It should give us latecomer theologians some pause when we witness a colossal contemporary assault on a doctrine so interwoven into the very fabric of church thought. Indeed, to rebuff an almost two-thousand year-old ecumenical consensus rests on the Universalists shoulders. And, yet, I did not hear one – not one – claim for Universalism in the initial post. I consider myself to be open-minded in my theological thirst for God; the cherry picking of evidence and skating over history, however, only paints a picture of an overstated attack, one that strangely tries to utilize church history in an attempt to debunk on one of the most stable doctrines in all of church history, thereby cutting its own throat.
by Dr. Aaron Bird, Adjunct Professor at Urbana Theological Seminary